Brazil arrests top lawmaker behind impeachment of former president Rousseff: Police

The former president of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, Mr Eduardo Cunha (second from left), being escorted to a police plane which took him to Curitiba.
The former president of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, Mr Eduardo Cunha (second from left), being escorted to a police plane which took him to Curitiba. PHOTO: AFP

BRASILIA (AFP) - Brazilian police on Wednesday (Oct 19) arrested Mr Eduardo Cunha, the driving force behind former president Dilma Rousseff's impeachment, in a new escalation of a corruption probe shaking Latin America's biggest country.

"We can confirm that (Cunha) was detained in Brasilia," a police spokesman told AFP. Mr Cunha was later flown under close guard to Curitiba, where the probe into a sprawling embezzlement and bribery ring at flagship state oil company Petrobras is based.

Mr Cunha, nicknamed Brazil's Frank Underwood after the scheming main character in the dark US political television series House of Cards, has been accused of taking some US$40 million (S$55.4 million) in Petrobras-related bribes, laundering money and hiding funds in secret Swiss bank accounts.

Mr Cunha, 58, denies all the charges. "This is an absurd decision, without motive," he said in a Facebook post.

In addition to his detention, the authorities ordered the seizure of eight cars, including two Porsche Cayennes, along with other assets amounting to nearly US$70 million.

Top anti-corruption judge Sergio Moro said the detention was necessary because of risks to "public order, as well as a concrete possibility of flight given his access to hidden resources abroad, as well as double nationality", the Justice Department said.

Part of Brazil's growing conservative evangelical movement, Mr Cunha has long been a consummate wheeler-dealer and became the architect of Ms Rousseff's removal from office in August on charges that she broke government budget laws.

Ms Rousseff, from the leftist Workers' Party, was replaced by Mr Michel Temer, from Mr Cunha's own centre-right PMDB party.

But Mr Cunha's triumph was short-lived as the corruption allegations caught up with him. He was stripped of his congressional seat in September, losing his parliamentary legal privileges.

Mr Cunha's downfall signals that the Petrobras corruption probe headed by Mr Moro is far from over.

Dozens of politicians - from the Workers' Party but also numerous figures on the right - as well as business executives have already been charged or convicted in the embezzlement and bribery scheme.

Ms Rousseff's presidential predecessor, the leftist icon Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, faces three corruption-related court cases, and speculation is rife that he may also be placed in pre-trial detention.

"Now it will be Lula's turn. He's next," said Mr Alberto Almeida from the Analysis Institute in Sao Paulo.

There is also speculation that Mr Cunha could turn on old allies and strike a plea bargain with prosecutors, fuelling a new wave of corruption cases. He has already said he is writing a book.

Analysts say that Mr Temer's government will be nervous about the fallout.

"The political consequences will depend on how long he remains in detention," Mr Almeida said. "He has a lot of information on Dilma's government, on the house of deputies, different parties."

Mr Temer, who has seen several of his ministerial choices targeted in the Petrobras inquiry - dubbed Operation Car Wash - rejects suggestions that he is seeking to curb the probe.

Even behind bars, Mr Cunha is likely to continue fascinating and scaring the political elite.

A master at maintaining influence even as his legal troubles piled up, Mr Cunha used multiple stalling tactics to impede his eventual ouster from Congress. The process dragged on for almost a year, the longest in Brazilian history.

The authorities cited that proven skill as one of the reasons for ordering his detention.

"Although the loss of his mandate probably represents some loss of power," Mr Moro wrote, "this was not totally exhausted, since the total extent of the ex-deputy's criminal activities and of his circle of influence are still unknown."